By Kyle Kirby, contributor with photos and videos by Bridget Manley
Shrieks filled the air as night finally fell on Fear Forest, a local haunted attraction near Cross Keys. As the last of the ghouls filed in under the enormous skull that serves as the Forest entrance, a line of customers began to form, eager for the all-in-good-fun terror that awaited them.
Since the beginning of October, a dedicated group of volunteers has morphed into strange and horrifying creatures of the night to become the Fright Crew. Lead by Brandy and Chad Nesselrodt, the Fear Forest and its fellow attractions, Fear Crops and Fear Factory, have been giving Rockingham County residents thrills and chills for 14 years.
The Citizen, in an effort to more fully report on this Halloween tradition, joined in on the ghastly fun as an embedded member of the Fright Crew. What better way to understand the terror industrial complex than to suit up as a member of a devilish army, painted up with fake markings of bloodlust and decay.
Mackenzie Lynn, who has been doing special effects makeup since the seventh grade, gave everyone who needed it blackened lips, tears of blood and whatever other distortions necessary. But many of the volunteers came prepared to scare with their own costumes and makeup.
Eric Trobaugh, who has been part of the Fright Crew for 12 years, led the way through the 0.4 mile track of Fear Forest.
As snakes slithered across walls, a chainsaw wielding boy asked, “Wanna play with me?” The unseasoned shuddered. But not Trobaugh.
“I fall asleep during horror movies,” he said.
A manic laugh emitted from the asylum portion of the trail, and a young girl could be seen rocking back and forth inside the rickety house. Bouncing up from her seat, she skipped closer, laughing all the way.
“Hi Dad,” said Peyton Trobaugh, breaking character.
Veronica Hinkle, a participant for the last four years, emerged from behind the asylum’s reception glass in a blood-stained gown. The staff for the Fear attractions must be committed, and Hinkle is no exception. She said she uses her vacation days at work in order to participate.
As crowds began stumbling through each part of the trail, the idle chatter stopped and each crew member fell into character. Hinkle disappeared behind the reception glass once again, and Peyton Trobaugh quickly contorted herself on a gurney. Squeals, screams and shreiks ensued.
After one group passed through, the younger Trobaugh said, “Someone in that group definitely peed. I can smell it.”
Hinkle concurred that it was not uncommon for participants to lose control of their bladders in terror.
The act of scaring bodily fluids out of willing “guests” nearly requires the actors to have a sixth sense, both in predicting how best to scare a particular group and in reading each other.
In some instances, Peyton Trobaugh would hop around and welcome guests into the asylum in a sing-song voice, while in others she would sit perfectly still in her chair, having twisted her body to odd proportions. Her presence served as a distraction, allowing her two blood-covered counterparts to jump from their hiding places at opportune moments.
Once the the participants’ backs were turned from her, however, Trobaugh wasted no time in crawling freakishly from her chair.
During a gap in participants, Brandy Nesselrodt walked through to check on the crew, and then explained Fear Forest’s glow stick policy.
Participants who are very young, or simply nervous, are given glow sticks called “Monster Wands.” When they feel too frightened, they can point the glow sticks at the crew members, who know to fall back, “as if struck by Kryptonite,” said Nesselrodt.
Crew members are also trained to be wary of personal space, as some customers are liable to react physically to the scares. No touching is allowed on either side, and if crew members notice a participant who has become particularly panicky, they are instructed to break character and reassure them.
Amid another pause in the groups, it was revealed that Hinkle is, in fact, terrified of spiders.
“I don’t do spiders,” she said, jumping away from a large arachnid crawling next to her post by the asylum exit. Eric Trobaugh was called to squish it.
“I started here because I learned that I’d rather scare than be scared,” said Hinkle.
Although she mostly manages guests and general operations these days, Brandy Nesselrodt said in the past she regularly performed as a character alongside the rest of the Fright Crew.
“The last couple of years, I may hide and startle groups or blend into the scenes while I’m checking on our crew,” she said. “But I don’t get to dress up and play a character, which I miss…I love to act in our attraction.”
Nesselrodt said on a fully staffed night, she has about 100 volunteers working with her. Even though they’re volunteers, they are eligible for a reimbursement of up to $600 for their time.
However, after a night working in the asylum it’s clear that everyone is in it for the thrill. The Fright Crew remains in character while pushing through dirt, exhaustion, and late nights to ensure that everyone is scared to their core. Yet the adrenaline rush of fear, and creating it, are not the only benefits of Fear Forest.
The haunted attraction also holds several benefit nights in order to give back to the community. On Oct. 17, customers were encouraged to bring a non-perishable food item to donate to a local food bank, and in turn received $3 off their Fear Pass. Two days later, they held the annual Zombie Run for Brains!, which brings funds and awareness to Brain Injury Connections of Shenandoah Valley. Last week, a portion of the proceeds from Thursday night went to Generations Crossing, a non-profit day care for children and adults.
Come hoarse throats and low temperatures, the Fright Crew played their parts dutifully from 7 p.m. to just after 11 p.m. Slowly they peeled off and began heading home to rinse off their makeup and prepare to go back to their regular lives as workers or students in the morning — and then do it all again the next night. There was certainly a sense of camaraderie after an evening of terrifying customers.
Though the attraction draws large crowds, Brandy Nesselrodt made clear that she, her husband, and their Fright Crew family all must retain jobs outside of their time at Fear Forest.
“We do this because we love it. We do it for those who appreciate it, and come to see us year after year,” she said. “We do it sometimes even when it’s tough dealing with critiques, staff, and hassles… because when October rolls around we would miss it terribly!”
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